A number of experiences and reflections lately have tended to confirm in me my suspicion that the understanding of life and of the meaning of life lies in the concept of rebirth. It seems to me now that the purpose of living is a movement toward the extinguishing of the self, not through death, which does not have that power, but, rather, through a chain of living during which the soul is presented with the challenge to free itself from life and achieve union with its true nature, which is what we call the divine.
There are two tendencies in the process of living, I think now, which may be characterized as an attraction toward darkness and an attraction toward light. The more we move in the direction of darkness, the thicker and more lugubrious the self becomes, resisting the inflow of and outflow toward the divine. By contrast, as we embrace the light, the self becomes less substantial and the soul becomes airier, more ethereal, more reflective of its essential nature, which we may call love.
Loving may thus be seen as a movement toward the liberation of the soul, a sort of practice, if you will, for its detachment from the self. But loving in a worldly sense can only occur within the context of the self, and, this being the case, loving on the plane of corporeal existence becomes, at best, a metaphor. It is a metaphor for the deepest longing of the soul, which is to liberate itself from life in order that it may achieve its destiny.
I have said heretofore that I believe the soul has a destiny. Now I accept the idea that the destiny of the soul is to grow and mature and rarefy itself through the process of living – reiterated living – until it has achieved the strength and purity to leave the living self – the self of lives – behind. The living self is thus a vessel which may carry the soul towards its fate, which is its re-absorption into that divine essence from which it emerged.
In this sense, death is merely a doorway through which the soul passes, one of many in a corridor that must inevitably lead to its liberation. But how may the soul pass beyond death and make progress toward the fulfillment of its destiny? That much, at least, is clear to me. The process by which the soul progresses in its journey toward enlightenment is one of self-extinguishing through non-wanting.
Wanting is the great impediment to enlightenment. The more we want in life the farther the soul retreats from its destiny. The progression of the soul, then, must be a process of stripping each subsequent iteration of life of its desires. Liberation from desire is the key to the soul’s liberation from the self. In wanting all, we achieve nothing; in wanting nothing we may achieve everything.
In this sense, love becomes a two-edged sword. Loving another human being, as I have said, is at best a metaphor for the soul’s striving for its destiny. But that love may be so intense and blinding that it actually becomes an impediment – perhaps the strongest impediment – to the attainment of that from which its draws its meaning. The meaning of love in life lies in its power to illuminate the meaning of love beyond life; yet if we do not see this clearly, we see nothing but the face of the beloved. And that face is nothing but a self which, itself, is seeking the liberation of the soul.
When we love another, then, we love that for which we and the other are striving: freedom from life and death; the realization of the soul’s true nature. Only in that sense does corporeal love achieve its meaning, as a signpost toward another sort of love which it mirrors and reflects. To love in life is necessary – it is perhaps the surest and clearest way to the attainment of Truth, which is the nature of the soul. In corporeal love, the soul expresses its longing to be free from time and space, and to wed itself to that from which it sprang and in which it finds its meaning – the meaning of life. That meaning is the result of the progress of the soul towards non-life, which is the soul’s authentic life, freed from the continuum of corporeal life and death. It is this that Kazantzakis meant when he said that the purpose of life is the transformation of flesh into spirit.
Death is not in the nature of the soul, nor is it in the nature of love. That is why we speak of undying love and love that outlasts time. These, too, are metaphors, but they indicate an instinctual understanding on the level of the soul of the meaning of love, and its importance as a guide toward non-life. This is why the experience of true love runs so deep: It reaches into the very essence of our beings, not as a reality but as a desire. However, in that love – even the deepest love in life – is a desire, it is an obstacle to the soul’s progress unless it is seen in its true light. Love can become darkness when we fail to understand, finally, that it has no meaning in itself, but, rather, that its meaning lies beyond itself in the striving of the soul to be free of desire. Love thus becomes ironic: it is the deep desire that, having shown us its depth, must extinguish itself.
The extinguishing of love in life is a vital part of the process of achieving enlightenment since love is the deepest of all human desires. It represents a need to move beyond the self, to meld with another, to be free from isolation, loneliness, and the sense of individuated selfhood, and in this it is a perfect metaphor for the soul’s desire to liberate itself from life. Yet in that very statement lies the contradiction: If the soul has a desire to free itself, then it becomes an impediment to its own liberation. The soul may thus have no desires – it must be stripped of desires, even the desire for its own destiny. For so long as the soul lusts after its destiny, it remains a victim of life.
Life is wanting, desire, hunger insatiable; freedom from life, which is the soul’s intent and the meaning of life, is liberation from every form of wanting – even the desire for liberation from life. The soul might, then, become its own obstacle, and as such, the soul must also be extinguished. I think this is what the great mystic Marguerite Porette meant when she spoke of the need to annihilate the simple soul in order to achieve union with the divine. For the soul, conceived of as a kind of entity inhabiting the body is itself a form of self, and that self, though more subtle and elusive than the corporeal self, must also be removed if liberation from life is to be achieved.
To put it another way: So long as we conceive of the soul as a kind of self, with its own character, identity, and desires, then the soul becomes a thing which, like any other thing that we desire or which has desires, can never be freed from life and death. No, I think it is necessary to free oneself even of the concept of the soul – just as I have argued elsewhere that we must free ourselves from the concept of god in order to make spiritual progress. For if we conceive of the soul as a particle or reflection of god, and if god is (as in my view) the single greatest obstacle to enlightenment, then it follows that the concept of the soul must likewise be destroyed.
We are not, as I had previously thought, a concatenation of body and soul, a synthesis of the corporeal and the divine; rather, I think now, we are made of light and dark, which are two forces that, held in dynamic tension, sustain us in the ongoing experience of life and death. If we are to escape that experience, if we are ever to achieve our destiny as living, loving beings, we must move away from darkness toward the light, which glows in our souls as conscience, the ground of our sense of right and wrong – the voice of god within us, as Tolstoy would say – the frail, unfailing flame that illuminates not only what we are, but what we were born and destined to become. It is the light that leads us home.